The speed. Lord, the speed. Takedown could have the best environments yet seen in a racing title but you simply won't have time to notice them. The game's opening sections, even for seasoned Burnout aficionados, are utterly bewildering. There is a wealth of fresh information to take in - new road structures and a new driving dynamic thanks to immediate access to boost, regardless of whether the gauge is full or not, to name two - but it's the unusual velocity of the action that dazzles. You'll still be pondering how something can simultaneously feel so familiar and foreign when it hits you. Literally. You've barely managed 100 meters in your lowest-spec 160mph hot hatch and already the CPU competition is trying to bury you into the scenery or place you in the path of oncoming traffic. Not to be outwitted by the AI, you start to fight back, of course, and so begins the Burnout 3 experience.
You'll already know that Takedown is all about aggressive driving. What you won't realise until you play it is how this shift in focus completely transforms the Burnout mechanic to the extent that it feels like an entirely different game. Racing takes a back seat to carnage as you face the fiercest opposition yet encountered in virtual racing. Let your primal instincts take over (they will whether you want them to or not) and it's not unusual to lose an event because you've become too involved in a race-long battle with the fifth-placed car to remember to fight your way to the front. It's only when you return to Burnout 2 that you realise just how little CPU driver interaction there was before. Any notion of battling in Takedown's predecessor was clearly player interpretation - opponents display a determination to get to the finish line first, sure, but no interest in you. Here, they don't just want to get past you, they want to hurt you as they do so.
Consequently, you'd better hurt them first. The incentive, other than attack being the best form of defence, is boost. Every offensive move - side-swiping, side-scraping, tailgating, shunting - is rewarded with the stuff (as are evasive manoeuvres and the usual oncoming traffic, near misses and drift elements). And in the wonderfully satisfying event of crashing them out of your way, termed a 'Takedown', you extend (and fill) your boost bar. Get taken down yourself and you lose a section of your gauge.
Coming off worst in an encounter with the competition isn't the end of the argument, and nothing characterises the combative spirit of Burnout 3 better than an Aftertouch Takedown. Holding down the A button during a crash invokes Impact Time, slowing down the action and allowing you control of your sliding wreck. You can use this lengthy opportunity (depending on momentum, Impact Time can often last beyond 20 seconds) to orchestrate complex crash combinations utilising the traffic and any structures around you, although nothing proves as satisfying as taking down one of your rivals. Except for multiple Aftertouch Takedowns, of course - as with deft timing and coordination (as well as a little luck), double, triple and even quadruple forms of this last-ditch offensive are perfectly achievable, and only further reinforce the mechanic's standing as one of the game's brilliant and defining inclusions.
Its origin, of course, lies in Crash mode. Burnout 2's party game of choice returns vastly enhanced, the addition of ramps, pick-ups and the aforementioned aftertouch has evolved it as much as the injection of the combat dynamic into the main game has radically altered the essence of Takedown's predecessors. Now more complex and focused in design, Crash mode could easily present itself as a standalone product, so accomplished is its new form.
Takedown is accomplished all round. The extent of the developer's proficiency can be seen in the way the revised structure focuses on player reward. It will see you bounced around the globe as much as you are on the track, with events opening across three territories and offering an engaging mix of activities (you get to sample the IndyCar racing early on, which is a nice touch). Then there are the little gameplay enhancements: the way the oncoming traffic's headlights are permanently on to help visibility; how the green chevrons from previous Burnouts have been replaced by clearer, yellow-hued alternatives; the period of amnesty afforded to the player when placed back in the path of a civilian vehicle following the camera's violent pan back from displaying a successful Takedown (an interruption which can be switched off, as you'd hope).
At a time when, to many, developers' continued preoccupation with realism has removed the element of fun that characterised early racers and first attracted them to the genre, Takedown offers up a gargantuan gulp of the highest racing octane.
Until you've blasted along the gently curved outline of its European motorways via a delicate balance of brake and steering input (the accelerator never anything other than flat to the pad), nitrous flowing, gaze fixed firmly on the distance through burning eyes you daren't shut while carving your way through traffic and trading paint with the competition at 200mph or more, you won't have delved deep into Takedown's core.
It still possesses the series' trademark ability to deliver Tempest-like 'in the zone' moments of remarkable intensity unlike any of its contemporaries, but now comes with a confidently revised dynamic, marking this as Criterion Games' finest hour. Crucially, it's everything a racing videogame should be: a relentless, unwavering and phenomenal assault on the senses.
Burnout 3: Takedown is released for Xbox and PS2 on 10 September